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‘We saw the chainsaw coming through the doorway’

<p>Ainjil Bragg-Chipp (Ainjil Reyes) PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Ainjil Bragg-Chipp (Ainjil Reyes) PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

<p>Jonathon &#8220;Caine&#8221; Lestelle and Ainjil Reyes. PHOTO: JESSE NABERS</p>

Jonathon “Caine” Lestelle and Ainjil Reyes. PHOTO: JESSE NABERS

<p>Ainjil Bragg, center, with Roxie Amoroso, left, and Ambra Barber. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES</p>

Ainjil Bragg, center, with Roxie Amoroso, left, and Ambra Barber. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES

The first warning came from the dog.

It was a little after midnight on Nov. 3, 2008. Ainjil Reyes and her fiancé, Jonathon “Caine” Lestelle, had settled into bed and were watching a movie. It was a few days after Halloween, the couple’s favorite holiday, and they were both fighting off colds.

Around 12:30, on schedule, Caine went into the bathroom to take his meds. He returned to the bedroom, climbed back into bed, and the two prepared to go to sleep.

Suddenly, their dog, who was lying in her kennel, began to growl.

Evee, a 6-month-old shepherd mix, never acted that way. She was usually calm, quiet, but now her hair was standing up and she was barking. The couple sat up to check on Evee and heard what sounded like power tools humming in the hallway of their interior-entry apartment building. Caine ran into the living room to fetch his backpack, which contained a gun he had bought recently to protect himself against his ex-wife and her friends, who had allegedly been harassing him since their separation.

The sound was coming from directly outside their door.

Ainjil was standing near the bedroom, dialing 9-1-1 on her cell phone, when she saw a chainsaw tear through their front door. Caine announced himself, asked who was there, and warned that he had a gun.

There was a moment of silence before gunfire started to fly into the one-bedroom apartment.

Ainjil froze in shock, and Caine pushed her to the ground to protect her. Gunshots popped, and a sulfurous haze filled the room.

Ainjil felt like she was being punched, hard, all over her body. “When everything stopped and it got quiet again, I just remember laying there and feeling like, ‘I just want to go to bed. I just want to close my eyes.’ I started to feel really warm. I felt like, ‘if I just close my eyes, everything will be OK.’”

As Ainjil lost consciousness, she caught sight of Evee, who was trembling in her kennel. Ainjil tried to move, but couldn’t. Dark liquid spilled from her mouth and trickled from wounds in her arms and abdomen. It was at that moment she realized she had been shot. She reached for Caine, but her arm fell behind her like a sandbag. She cried out for help, and a fuzzy, faraway voice responded. It was the 9-1-1 dispatcher, still on the phone.

Ainjil had no idea where her phone had fallen, but she was able to respond to the operator and give her address. The dispatcher kept her talking until the police arrived.

Ainjil was taken by ambulance to Sunrise Hospital’s trauma unit, and went straight into surgery. She remembers the ambulance ride, but not the six medics she was told surrounded her gurney. She remembers bright lights, and lying on an operating table, watching as a nurse stuffed every last article of her clothing into an evidence bag. Then she went under.

When Ainjil awoke, she was lying in a hospital bed, alone. When a nurse came in, she asked about Caine. The nurse dodged the questions, telling Ainjil that her own well-being should be her priority. When Ainjil did not relent, the nurse told her no one else had come into the hospital with her. Caine never made it to the hospital because he was pronounced dead on the scene.

Ainjil composed herself before turning back to the nurse.

“You need to get a doctor in here because I’m pregnant,” she said.

At her request, an ultrasound tech came into the room. She applied gel to Ainjil’s belly, and moved the heartbeat monitor across it. The screen was still.

On Nov. 3, 2008, Ainjil entered a nightmare she will never fully escape. On good days, she stews over the horrific crime, and wonders what life could have been like if Caine and her baby were alive. On bad days, she wishes she hadn’t survived.

Ainjil was shot eight times by an AK-47, through her arms, legs and torso. She lost the love of her life. She lost her child. And the person who had taken it all away was her husband.

Ainjil met William Keck in 2003. One of her roommates had invited him over to hang out, and soon the two had fallen in love.

Keck was in Las Vegas, his hometown, on leave from the Navy. When he met Ainjil, he extended his vacation to stay with her as long as possible before reporting for duty in Jacksonville, Fla.

When Keck finally had to leave, the couple vowed to stay together. They were young and in love and, on one of her visits to the East Coast, decided to get married. They had been dating for three months and she had just turned 20.

Ainjil planned to move to the military base, but didn’t have to. Less than a month after their wedding, Keck was discharged.

They couple would normally keep close contact with phone calls and letters, but one day Ainjil did not hear from Keck. Days passed before he finally called — he had been hospitalized and was under mental evaluation.

“They think I’m crazy,” she says he told her. “I’m going to go with it.”

Keck promised to call the next chance he got, and hung up the phone. The next call came a day or so later.

He was out of the Navy. He said he would start driving back to Las Vegas that day, and would tell her everything when he got home.

Keck arrived a few days later, and the couple spent the night together, Keck rehashing how he faked sick to get an honorable discharge. Ainjil didn’t fully understand the circumstances of his dismissal, but she was happy to have him home.

Looking back now, knowing what Keck has done to her, Ainjil still believes Keck faked his way out of the military, much like he would later fake his innocence in court. There were early warning signs about Keck, but at the time, Ainjil thought they were fluke incidents. Her friends, however, tell a different story. Ainjil’s close friend and bandmate Roxie Amoroso says Keck had always seemed “off.”

The problems started the next night. Less than 24 hours after he had arrived home, Keck was arrested for DUI. It was the first of many legal problems they would face throughout their relationship.

The next few years were up and down. Anjil says Keck started to use methamphetamine and at a low point dismantled a brand-new Toyota Celica she had just paid off using money she had inherited from her grandmother. He would take their rent money and lie about how he had spent it.

The couple lived together and apart as Keck cycled in and out of jail for a second DUI and other charges, like breaking and entering into an adandoned apartment building using a chainsaw.

Then, after a stint living with his mother, Keck seemed to level out.

He and Ainjil renewed their vows in July 2007 and looked forward to a bright future. He had a stable job at UPS. Ainjil was doing tattoos. Things seemed to be going fine, and they were thinking about starting a family.

Then in December of that year everything fell apart.

Ainjil had come home from work to find Keck playing games on the computer, as he often did. She thought nothing of it, and went to bed. At about 2 a.m., her phone rang. It was an old friend of Keck’s. The friend had seen him speeding down Tropicana, likely drunk.

Ainjil left home and searched every bar and casino he liked to frequent, with no luck. Then, after daybreak, she ran an inmate search on the Clark County Detention Center’s website.

Sure enough, Keck had been arrested for another DUI — his third.

“There was a chunk of time when he was good. Once things started going bad again, I saw it as a red flag that the shit was going to happen all over again,” Ainjil recalls. “It wasn’t going to stop.”

She had stayed with Keck because she cared about him and wanted to honor her commitment. In addition, she didn’t want to disappoint her family or let them know the extent to which her husband was having trouble. But at this point she had had enough.

At the time of the attack, Ainjil and Caine had been a couple for nine months. They had met the year before at the tattoo shop where they worked together, she as an artist, he as an apprentice.

The two got to know each other when they would spend time in bars after work, drawing and talking about their failing relationships. Their hangouts quickly turned from weekly to nightly, and a few months later, they had fallen in love.

Ainjil remembers the conversation vividly. It was Feb. 3, 2008, about 2 a.m.

Caine asked if they could hang out and talk about something.

“I didn’t know what was on his mind, but I already knew at this point that I was becoming far more attached to him than I knew was appropriate for a married woman,” Ainjil says.

They went to their bar, Shifty’s, and sat across from each other. Caine told Ainjil he had a problem. She asked what it was, but he said he couldn’t explain.

“Sitting there, I could see him boiling in his head,” Ainjil said. “I was like, this is ridiculous. If you can’t say it out loud, text it to me.”

Caine picked up his phone and began to text. Then erase. Then text, then erase. Finally he pressed send, switched off his phone and lit a cigarette.

The message came in and it was one Ainjil had hoped for: I’m in love with you.

That night they made plans to end their marriages to be together within a week’s time.

Surprisingly, though, Ainjil didn’t have to. The day following her pact with Caine, her husband initiated their separation. Keck told her the spark of their relationship had long since gone out, and he wanted to be with someone else. Ainjil, having long lost interest in her husband, did not object. They agreed that there was no reason to hurry a divorce and divide assets, but they would be separated and Ainjil would start making plans to move out. That night, her husband brought over his girlfriend, and Ainjil slept on the couch.

After the conversation, the two remained friendly. Her husband allowed her to store some of her belongings at the house they owned together, and Ainjil and Caine occasionally gave Keck rides to work.

Caine’s breakup was not as easy. His wife opposed the split, and the divorce was complicated because they had a 2-year-old son whom they both wanted to keep full-time. After Caine had moved out, he and Ainjil had filed numerous police reports, chronicling phone calls and physical threats allegedly made by Caine’s ex. On one occasion, when the couple went to pick up Caine’s son from his ex’s house, a group of cars pulled in, trapping them in the driveway. On other occasions, they reportedly threatened to beat them up.

Caine completed his divorce and gained full custody of his son five days before the attack. The boy should have been with them at the apartment, and Keck knew that.

In the hospital, when detectives asked Ainjil who could have hurt her, she named Caine’s ex-wife. She, not Keck, had allegedly delivered the scarier threats.

Keck had been upset to learn of her pregnancy, and Ainjil says he had called more than once to insult her, but would always call back and apologize. Ainjil and Caine chalked it up to a mood swing and ignored it.

“If I look back on it, I think, ‘I guess those were warning signs. But at the same time, none of it seemed like it was anything to take seriously. The threats from Caine’s ex-wife seemed far more legitimate and far more serious.” It wasn’t until a detective told Ainjil that a red Honda Civic was seen fleeing the apartment complex that she realized the killer was her husband.

“It will always haunt me that we never took it seriously,” she says.

After her surgery to treat the gunshot wounds, doctors thought she needed to regain her strength before inducing labor. For that reason, Ainjil carried her lifeless son for five days before the hospital moved her from the intensive care unit to the maternity ward.

Three people were able to join her for the delivery process. She chose friends Ambra Barber, Donna Rangel and Roxie. The nurses administered drugs and explained that it could take days for her to deliver. The women made arrangements to stay overnight if they needed to, and began to wait.

Ainjil went into labor a few hours later. She delivered her child — a son, she learned for the first time — but was told she would have to keep pushing to expel the placenta.

“When I started pushing again, I felt something heavy and metallic fall between my legs. I asked my friends, ‘What the fuck was that?’”

A nurse, who was uninformed about the case, gasped. Her friends tear up at the memory.

It was a bullet.

Ainjil named her son Shadow 5in Bragg — a first name his father had liked, a middle name they agreed on and the last name of Caine’s mother.

“He was a baby,” Ainjil recalls. He was only 18 weeks old, but he had long legs and fingernail beds like his lanky father. She held him as long as she could, before investigators came to collect the bullet, and the coroner came to collect her baby.

Ainjil slipped into depression after her release. Both of her arms were in casts, and she was helpless, unable to bathe or feed herself. Her sister had to do it. On top of that, she had been shot in her right hand, her tattooing hand, which she also used to play keyboard in the local band Pigasus.

Once Ainjil had recovered, she announced that she was going to move out of her sister’s place into an apartment by herself. Her friends, who had always known her to live with at least one person, feared she would kill herself. And, as hard as it is for Ainjil to admit now, the thought was never far from her mind. She stockpiled drugs and never bothered to unpack boxes. She was waiting for the opportune time to end her life. At first, Ainjil thought she would wait until the end of Ambra’s pregnancy, but then her sister got pregnant, so she thought she would wait till her baby was born. Then her mom started chemotherapy and, before the time had come, Ainjil was feeling better.

Ainjil credits her friends and bandmates for pulling her through those dark times. They would pick her up and force her to practice, even when she couldn’t yet play keyboard. They would take her out to bingo or shows, anything to occupy her time. Weeks passed, then months passed, then a year. Her friends laugh when they think about how they used to check on her in shifts. But it worked, and it was worth it. The friend they had once knew — the passionate artist and cheerful musician — began to resurface. Next, she met Dave Chipp, whom she is now married to.

Dave stuck with her through her recovery, more faithfully than she could have imagined anyone would. He’s there with her through the emotional struggles, through the court battles and night terrors, and she says there is no way to express the gratitude she feels toward him.

But she can’t help but wonder what life would be like if things had happened differently. Ainjil never fell out of love with Caine, and that’s apparent in her giddy storytelling. When she talks about Caine, it’s as if he lives in her present, as if they had only confessed their love yesterday. She walks a fine line between honoring the past and living in it.

Ainjil had decided early on not to let Keck ruin her life. If she would have killed herself, he would have won. If she continued to live in misery, he would have won.

Ainjil used her horrific experience to tell her story. If anyone asked what had happened to her, she told them the story start to finish. She told the story so she would remember every last detail, and when the time came, damn Keck to a life in prison.

Keck didn’t stop tormenting Ainjil from behind bars. She says he would have girlfriends on the outside call Ainjil’s tattoo parlor and deliver cryptic messages. He would write her almost daily for the first year of his incarcertation, talking about plans for them when he got out. He maintained his innocence in his letters, saying he couldn’t thank Caine enough for saving the love of his life. Talking about his plans to come home and start a family once the ordeal was dismissed. Ainjil believes his intentions were phony. Keck isn’t crazy or delusional in her mind. He was merely trying to paint a picture of innocence for the courts.

In only one letter, scrawled out in a cipher taken from The DaVinci Code, did Keck ever express remorse. The message said “I’m sorry.”

For Ainjil, the hardest part of court wasn’t having to see Keck. She didn’t acknowledge him, save the two times she was asked to identify him from the stand. The hardest part was learning details of the crime she didn’t know, having to relive the most painful period in her life over and over again.

“I think the hardest thing to hear was,” Ainjil trails off … “The baby had sustained two bullet wounds while he was still inside me, and when I got to the hospital I was bleeding quite a lot, and the doctors had to make the call to close me up, to close the wounds and stop the bleeding. My immediate assumption was that the baby had died as a result of the gunshot wounds, but apparently he was still alive.”

Her blood pressure had risen while she was in surgery, to the point where it couldn’t sustain the baby’s life.

“What if I hadn’t been shot so many times? What if I had gotten to the hospital just a little bit sooner? Everyone says you can’t focus on the what-ifs. You can’t, because those will drive you crazy, but … losing Caine was so hard. So hard. And just to think for one fucking second that just one thing good could have still remained, the baby could have. There’s not one really good thing that was left, really. He took everything.”

Initially, Ainjil didn’t want the death penalty for Keck. It would have been too easy. Why should he get to leave this Earth while she remained and suffered for his actions? She hoped for life in prison without parole for his five counts, and was told to expect as much.

But when a Las Vegas jury sentenced Keck to death on July 12, Ainjil was overwhelmed with the sense that they had brought her justice.

“Those jurors decided what was right, and I totally, completely and wholeheartedly agree with them. When I heard the verdict read, that’s what needed to happen. That was the only outcome that would have been even somewhat acceptable.”

With the trial behind her, Ainjil is able to relax in a way she has not in years. She has a strong marriage and the same fearless group of friends. She still tattoos and plays in a band. She has a new life ahead of her, though she will never forget the life she thought she would have.

“It’s just knowing that no matter what, there’s always going to be two people missing. I will never forgive him for that … never.”